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Culture Birds Don’t Eat Ash: A Motorcycle Trip Into the PastKeith Baskett lost his father unexpectedly. He took to the road to reconnect with the man he'd lost and found much more than he expected.

I went to meet my father, Franz Baskett, a year and a half after he died, in the towns where I thought he’d been most alive. I’d missed the best of him due to our distance in age, unable to connect with the man constantly enfolded in cigarette smoke and literature. In early spring I left Utah for the Deep South, riding a newly assembled 1973 BMW R75/5, with his ashes in one of my hard panniers. If he were still alive, he’d murder me.

He was a hard sell on motorcycles, inherently dangerous as they are, and it took a decade of work to find a marque and model that we could both appreciate. A black, long-wheelbase BMW R75/5 with the small toaster tank was key to connecting with a complicated man who had an overdeveloped and aggrandized taste in all things. Dad created endlessly; he was a poet, a sculptor, a chef, a painter, a breeder of roses. A testament to the duality of man, he had an explosive past and a keen understanding of the application of violence. I never met that part of him; I knew it only through the scars on his hand and his intimate knowledge of setting broken noses.

I knew the man with stacks of manuscripts next to his desk, intricate drafts and revisions seeking honesty in finite expression, evoking beauty and the futility of trying to capture it. Eccentric to the end, he mandated a sky burial as the final closing of his part in the cycle of life, but my family instead chose to scatter his ashes in the Ozarks — beautiful, but mundane and disappointing. I’d deliberately let life get in the way of feeling his loss, and worried that I’d missed the window to grieve.

As I rode up Vail Pass — the last true mountain pass my father’s eyes ever saw — I focused on the sound of a mildly loose rocker arm rather than wondering what the poet’s mind thought of this place. Both the BMW and I struggled in the thinning, 28-degree air, and I looked forward to leaving the high desert behind. The days that followed blurred together as I made my way to Arkansas, alone with my thoughts in my helmet. My dad lived in various corners of this part of the country his entire life, from bayou to kudzu, coast to pines, to the Boston and Ozark Mountains.

In the moments of quiet after killing the boxer engine for a tank of gas, I couldn’t ignore the sounds of the small life buzzing, chirping, and crying out around me. It was the cloak of my childhood, my home. I finished high school here. My first loves were here. My skin soaked up the humidity like a neglected fern. I breathed easier, deeper, and enjoyed the lingering notes of honeysuckle and sassafras. I rode without hurry around the town he lived in during his final years, met with his friends and coworkers, and sat silently as they got lost in their own narratives of his exploits. Even after 18 months, they grieved his passing in a way that I hadn’t been able to. They wept openly and honestly, and I did my best to comfort them.

When the day came for the rest of the family to say goodbye to my dad, I dutifully measured out and distributed his ashes in cups to be scattered from the bluffs we stood upon. I wasn’t truly present with them, angry and fixated as I was on the thought that this was not his preferred burial, and that the place we’d picked was picturesque rather than meaningful. Thoughtful and poetic, my father defied social expectations that didn’t mesh with his vision, and this made-for-TV ritual wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be staked to a treetop platform so birds could pick at his remains to feed themselves and their young. He wanted to be part of the air, returned to the life cycle, and to experience growth forevermore. I alone was livid at our failure to reach, just this once, outside of convention in order to honor the most unique and dear fruit on our family tree.

I didn’t empty the ashes entirely as custom would have me do; I wasn’t done riding with him yet. I left the mountains and descended into the delta country, drawing closer to the Mississippi and the more complicated history of the Deep South. As I crossed into Tennessee and the brown roads of Memphis sweated in front of me, I could hear his voice desecrating a Joe Cocker album, playing thin and distorted from the tape deck of an ‘85 Ford LTD. The last time I was here with him, I was 10 years old, and he was writing short stories of escape from marital monotony that I would not discover for two decades. The bike pulled easily here, unstressed and confident, its suspension and brakes adequate for this pace of life. I glided under magnolias, walked on Beale, and opened my senses to the density of life around me. I adjusted the carburetors for sea level, spent a night with my sister, then rode to the town in Northern Mississippi that I believed represented the apex of my father’s creative career.

I hadn’t visited since the dissolution of my nuclear family, when I was prepubescent, untouched by the complications of love and raging desire, and quite unable to comprehend the energies that drive artists. I couldn’t connect to my father at all during this period of his life. He cursed loudly in socially inappropriate circumstances, smelled like smoke in otherwise sterile places, and could be counted upon to disrupt as a rule. I was a timid child, constantly embarrassed by his boisterousness. Now I explored his places of power such as I remembered them. Our house had been demolished long ago, but his office on the college campus looked almost identical. I found its door unlocked and let myself in. In this room the man wrestled with language and contended with his muses: disappointment and loss. Here was his pinnacle and the sure mark of his plummet.

I rode to a bookstore where he’d read his work. The store did not seem to have either aged or been renovated; entropy was busy elsewhere. When a college-aged employee asked if she could assist, I reluctantly began to describe what thin veneer of belief led me to the store in the first place. She ran to grab the store owner, who shook my hand with warmth and strength. He remembered my younger self, Dad’s books, the dates of his readings, and the power of the literary associates the town was home to during that time. He brought me coffee and a signed portrait of my father that hung in the corner of the store. He said my father took dozens of students dedicated to partying and drove them inward, made them seek new depths of expression, loosened the reins on their gentle expectations, and caused them to be dissatisfied by a life of less.

The shop owner looked at me intensely and, in a tone and cadence I could not escape, told me that of all things, my father spoke of his love for me most often and with the greatest sincerity. A stranger across a table in a city I no longer knew had efficiently destroyed the emotional distance I’d placed between myself and my father. I had to leave. I rode out of town on back roads, running down the eastern spine of Mississippi, fleeing to the Gulf Coast. After a few hours a fuel line exploded, and the sharp odor of high-ethanol gas sliced through the languid, baking soup of Mississippi summer. I replaced the line and started riding, and the incident broke me out of my emotional stupor. All of my adult life, I drew lines between me and my father, unable to see our parallels. Here I was, streaking across our homeland on a motorcycle we both loved, wet with words and pretension, a furious desire to give name to every unknown motivation in my heart. Our similarities were undeniable.

In that moment, I felt closer to him than I'd often allowed myself to be during his life.

The rhythm of cicadas, the distant whisper of the ocean, and the rumble of poorly tuned Chevy Stepsides welcomed me to Alabama. Arriving at my grandma’s house, I shut off the BMW and coasted to a silent stop so as not to wake her. But the matriarch of my family was awake and alert, half the size of her normal self, losing her battle with cancer. Her hug was without force. The last hug I got from my dad was a strong one, followed by a clap on the back. We had no warning of his passing. When I visited, just a few days before his death, he looked as healthy and happy as any time in memory. When the phone calls came informing me of his passing, I argued with my family, insisting that they were mistaken, before I numbly attended to his funeral and estate. Now in Alabama, I said goodbye to my grandmother in person for what I feared would be the last time, given I was 2,500 miles from home and in no rush to return.

I stopped in New Orleans, because my father had written of its vibrant life, the danger married to the ethereal and unknown, history preserved against the encroaching tides. I found nothing but ill-intentioned addicts and drunks in gaudy sunglasses. He and I were quite different, but I inherited his appreciation for eccentricity and had become a social outlier like him. Days and miles passed as I rode west, and under a night sky in New Mexico I traced the Milky Way with my finger and, for the first time in a very long time, spoke to him.

I told him of my sorrow at missing so much of his best period. I explained how much more I know now, how his memory lives on and how fondly he’s regarded. I recited those words of his that live in my thoughts, speaking his poetry to the sagebrush and pinging exhaust pipes. I raged at my loss, at his loss, and at the futility of putting words to that life that had become a fountainhead of conversation for so many. I thanked him. Now that his ashes had long since settled into the oaks of the Ozarks, food denied to turkey vultures, now that his voice would never again resonate in my ear on the subject of cooking, writing, love, or war … I thanked him.

In that moment, I felt closer to him than I’d often allowed myself to be during his life. I couldn’t have known he would die when he did but in a strange way, I felt appreciative. Ten years from now, that bookstore might be gone, and with it, the owner and his stories of my father’s vitality. In 10 years, I probably couldn’t afford the BMW R75/5 that bound me to him and spirited me to the places he once loved. I lived like he and I would have more time together, but we didn’t. I know him more now than I ever did during his life. I have a lifetime of his works to digest and a deeper understanding of the man who produced them, and I finally feel close enough to him to do so correctly.

The rest of my ride would be a simple necessity; in all the ways that mattered, Dad and I were home, together again.

Sky Burial

When it is done, when it has happened,

When I am dead on the bathroom floor,

Dead as a bad idea, dead as an old dance,

Call in the rustic hippie carpenter

And have him crudely construct,

In the backyard, my platform.

Then take me up and place me there,

Washed and arranged, with the help

Of my friends and the sad carpenter,

Naked as I came and unconfused.

Then they will come: the studious, decrepit

Buzzards with their beaks made for shearing.

And they will pull off my unconcerned flesh

To nourish themselves and their young

And I will become part and parcel of them,

Cruising forever in winged generations above

The mundane forest and the boring subdivisions,

The tired cities and the unfortunate farms,

In the places of purity, in the high meadows

Of the clouds, eye level with the crags

And the hanging valleys of the wise mountains.

Then will I be near to perfection. Close.

And I will dwell there forever

On the confines of heaven. Taken in,

As I will be, to a soaring chain of events.

By Franz Baskett, from his collection of poems, The Accident Prone Man.

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